C.S. Peirce's "Neglected Argument"
by John W. Oller, Jr., Ph.D.
In 1908, Charles Sanders Peirce, the recognized father of America's only distinctive philosophy, namely pragmatism, and the mentor of William James and John Dewey, published an argument entitled "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God." In it he insisted,
"The endless variety in the world has not been created by law. It is not of the nature of uniformity to originate variation, nor of law to beget circumstance. When we gaze upon the multifariousness of nature we are looking straight into the face of a "living spontaneity."1
Lest there could be any doubt that he was speaking of God, in another place he wrote,
"The variety of the universe ... which we see whenever and wherever we open our eyes, constitutes its liveliness, its vivacity. The perception of it is a direct, though darkling perception of God."2
Yet it was not merely in the variety of experience that Peirce saw God, but more specifically in man's capacity to understand that variety. Of this capacity, Einstein wrote (apparently quoting the eminent 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant), "the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."3 Peirce, too, was overwhelmed by the fact that such a vast diversity should be meaningful to the human mind. His "Neglected Argument for the Reality of God" is summed up in his statement that:
" … there is a reason, an interpretation, a logic in the course of scientific advance, and this indisputably proves to him who has perceptions of rational or significant relations, that man's mind must have been attuned to the truth of things in order to discover what he has discovered. It is the very bedrock of logical truth."4
Or, more succinctly, Peirce says in another place,
" ... unless man has a natural bent in accordance with nature's, he has no chance of understanding nature at all…. "5
Peirce saw man's capacity for scientific advances as unimpeachable evidence of the existence of God:
" … the discoveries of science, their enabling us to predict what will be the course of nature, is proof conclusive that though we cannot think any thought of God's, we can catch a fragment of his Thought, as it were."6
In his voluminous writings, mostly not well known until long after his death in 1914, Peirce distinguished three universes: a primary universe of sensations or raw experience; a secondary universe of reactions to sensory data; and a tertiary universe of representations or signs used to relate the primary and secondary universes. Further, Peirce linked his "Neglected Argument" explicitly with the problem of the origin of these universes." He argued that
" … a latent tendency toward belief in God is a fundamental ingredient of the soul, and that, far from being a vicious or superstitious ingredient, it is simply a natural precipitate of meditation upon the origin of the Three Universes."7
Nonetheless, in all of this he repeatedly recognized the continuity and unity of "the universe" in the common sense of the term. He wrote, for instance, a whole section on "The Logic of the Universe," as part of a larger paper on "The Logic of Continuity."8
Peirce's contention was that there is order in the universe and that this systematicity (or organization) is comprehensible in some degree to mankind. However, the order that is observed is manifested in such marvelous and diverse ways that to understand it requires advance insight, correct instinct, or what Galileo called "il lume naturale," so that man's hypotheses about the universe, or Peirce's three universes, would not be formulated aimlessly, but would rather be informed from the beginning by the Creator's tuning.
Of course, being a logician, a mathematician par excellence, and a philosopher of logic who towered above most of his contemporaries, Peirce had no illusions about having achieved perfect knowledge of any ultimate truth. In fact, he insisted that such perfect knowledge is logically impossible for finite man. On the other hand, he argued with equal force that it is silly and pretentious to argue as David Hume (1711-76) did that knowledge of reality is unattainable. Peirce poked fun at his erstwhile fellow Scotsman for his feigned dissatisfaction with the apparent veracity of our comprehension of sense perceptions—what Peirce called simply "observations of fact."9 Peirce wrote,
" … what Hume's argument would lead him to is that reasoning is 'illegitimate' because its premises are perfectly satisfactory. He candidly confesses that they are satisfactory to himself. But he seems to be dissatisfied with himself for being satisfied. It is easy to see, however, that he pats himself on the back and is very well satisfied with himself for being so dissatisfied with being satisfied."10
Peirce concludes that if Hume's skepticism is taken seriously, then it has dire consequences for the whole edifice of reason.
" … a careful reader will see that if he proves anything at all by all his reasoning, it is that reasoning, as such, is ipso facto and essentially illogical, 'illegitimate', and unreasonable."11
Did Peirce go too far in insisting that "all our knowledge may be said to rest upon observed facts"? He goes on to say that
" … it is true that there are psychological states which antecede our observing facts as such. Thus, it is a fact that I see an inkstand before me; but before I can say that I am obliged to have impressions of sense into which no idea of an inkstand, or of any separate object or of an 'I,' or of seeing, enter at all; and it is true that my judging that I see an inkstand before me is the product of mental operations upon these impressions of sense. But it is only when the cognition has become worked up into a proposition, or judgment of a fact, that I can exercise any direct control over the process; and it is idle to discuss the 'legitimacy' of that which cannot be controlled. Observations of fact have, therefore, to be accepted as they occur."12
His point, I believe, is that attempts to justify philosophically our "observations of fact" are largely pointless and superfluous. To engage in such activities we have to pretend that we are doubtful and hesitant about things concerning which, in fact, we can have no reasonable doubt at all. Peirce's argument, therefore, effectively rules out the possibility of drawing the world of experience into question as so many philosophers have attempted to do. It abolishes the very possibility of that kind of agnosticism which pretends to know nothing at all for certain while it asserts that it knows everything about what can be known—namely nothing. It is the same point that was later used by John Dewey in his famous argument against Bertrand Russell's attempt to make a problem out of our "construction" of the real world from the imperfect data of sense. As Dewey contended, there is no logic in pretending to doubt the existence of the real world while one is visibly and inevitably standing in it.13
Russell's argument, and similar ones by other skeptics, began with the postulation of the multitude of viewpoints from which any given object of experience can be viewed. Dewey pointed out that this initial move immediately presupposes what Russell was at pains to draw into question—namely the existence of the real world and of distinct and real viewers within it. If there are to be different viewpoints, as Russell's argument requires, how will the differences be recognized except within the world whose existence Russell wants to draw into question?
The problem for modern science, for philosophy, and even for the common man, is not to explain the difficulties that we sometimes have in making sense of the data of experience, the problem is to explain the fact that we often succeed in understanding even very complex facts of experience. Failures to comprehend are easy to handle. The light was dim so he thought he saw a bear when in fact it was a tree stump. She was very tired. He had drunk too much wine. The pain in his leg was unbearable. The drugs caused him to hallucinate. And so on ad infinitum. Breakdowns in our comprehension do not present any special epistemological difficulties nor do they constitute grave philosophical problems as some pretenders like Hume, and his many followers would like for us to believe. The real difficulty is to explain the miracle that the world of experience is largely comprehensible, and further that through the efforts of science and its associated tools of logical thought, the ordinary comprehensions of mankind can be indefinitely improved.
The serious difficulty for modern thinkers who have rejected God is the fact stated by Israel's King David in the 19th Psalm:
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world … (KJV, Psalm 19.1-4a).
The same argument was reiterated by Paul in Romans:
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse (KJV, Romans 1:20)
More recently, it has been restated by C.S. Peirce, one of the greatest thinkers of modern times.
Early in his acquaintance with Darwin's writings, Peirce rejected the Darwinian notion of "random mutation" as a source of the numerous species on the earth. Later, it seems that he capitulated, however, and under the pressure of an emerging generation of evolutionists accepted a form of Darwinian evolution. Still his "Neglected Argument" stands as a challenge to any living philosopher or scientist who would like to do away with the need for God. What must be explained is the miraculous comprehensibility of the world of experience.
Beyond that, as long as evangelicals survive, the worldly philosophers will also have to deal with the Gospel and all of the historical facts which it embraces. My only regret concerning Peirce's writings is that he seems to have underrated the historical Messiah and to have overestimated the importance of man's reason. Nevertheless, skeptics of all persuasions would do well to return occasionally to Peirce's "Neglected Argument."
1. In Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, eds. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce: Volumes V and VI, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, 1965), p. 372 of Vol. 6.
2. Ibid., p. 430 of Vol. 6.
3. Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years, (Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel. 1950, rev. ed. 1956), p. 61.
4. Op Cit., p. 325 of Vol. 6.
5. Ibid., p. 326 of Vol. 6
6. Ibid., p. 346 of Vol. 6.
7. Ibid., p. 333 of Vol. 6.
8. Ibid., pp. 132-146 of Vol. 6.
9. Ibid., p. 356 of Vol. 6.
10. Ibid, p. 344 of Vol. 6.
12. Ibid, pp. 356-357 of Vol. 6.
13. John Dewey, Essays in Experimental Logic, (New York: Dover, 1916).
* At the time this article was written, Dr. Oller was Professor of Linguistics at the University of New Mexico. He is currently Hawthorne Regents Professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.
Cite this article: John W. Oller, Jr., Ph.D. 1984. C.S. Peirce's "Neglected Argument". Acts & Facts. 13 (3).